DreamWorks Animation’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman marks the studio’s first attempt at updating the now 50+ year old material of The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, drawing on the variety program’s “Peabody’s Improbable History” segments where a young boy and his adoptive parent, an exceedingly intellectual talking dog, travel back in time and interact with notable historical figures. This movie tries to stay true to those simple roots, as well as crafting more of a story on the foundation built the classic cartoon by focusing on the father / son relationship between Peabody and Sherman.
The film opens with an entertaining reintroduction to Mr. Peabody, a super genius of innumerable talents who can achieve just about anything he sets his mind to and analyze his way out of any predicament. His storied career lacked one thing he missed, though: a family to call his own, since the prodigious pooch was constantly passed over by would-be owners in favor of normal dogs. In adulthood, he fills this void by winning the legal right to adopt Sherman, a bright and constantly chipper young lad. Peabody educates and bonds with Sherman through their trips to the historical past through Peabody’s “WABAC machine”, here completely reimagined as a futuristic sphere of a vessel. After a (mis)adventure where the pair escape the onset of the French Revolution, the pair return to the present and prepare for the milestone of Sherman’s first day at school. Unfortunately, Sherman soon runs afoul of his classmate Penny Peterson when he corrects her on the truth of the story about George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. A resentful Penny lashes out by bullying and teasing Sherman over having a dog for a parent, which ultimately provokes Sherman into biting her in the ensuing tussle.
Despite Peabody’s unimpeachable record and the fact that Sherman has never been in trouble, Peabody is informed at a meeting with Sherman’s principal and “Ms. Grunion”, surely the world’s meanest social worker, that the latter intends to investigate Sherman’s living situation and will take the boy away if she doesn’t like what she sees. An undaunted Peabody invites the Petersons over and turns on the charm to win Penny’s parents over to his side, but Sherman gets nowhere with Penny until he ends up revealing the WABAC machine to her against Peabody’s orders. When the willful Penny gets herself engaged to King Tut in Egypt and Sherman turns to Peabody for help, it’s the start of a grand misadventure through time as the trio embark on a setback-laden journey back to the present.
Aside from some slapstick, Peabody’s recurring puns (that only he really gets), and a pair of tiresome bathroom humor gags, Peabody & Sherman relies on a mostly irreverent treatment of history for its humor. For instance, when Sherman and Peabody meet Marie Antoinette she’s portrayed as a glutton gouging herself on cake, and a “let them eat cake!” line to the duo literally manages to start the French Revolution in short order – which, I’m afraid I have to point out, is unflatteringly ironic since this is based on just the same kind of popular myth that Sherman eagerly debunks later on to start the movie’s plot in earnest. In ancient Egypt we get mockery of Egyptian superstitions and rituals, capped off by Peabody trying to pull a fast one by imitating the Egyptian god Anubis. In Renaissance Italy the trio help Leonardo da Vinci to get Mona Lisa to smile for his famous painting in return for his help in jump-starting the WABAC, and Sherman test drives and ultimately crash lands his flying machine. The Battle of Troy settles for a lot of predictable gags relating to the Trojan horse and the overbearing machismo of the Greek warriors. All this turns out to be just a warm up to the final act, where a certain dire incident sets off a mad scramble to preserve the very fabric of the space time continuum. Most of the time the movie doesn’t so much play with or in the context of its historical settings so much as it does lampoon them in a similar way to what Shrek did with iconic fairy tales, but while that brand of humor is a proven success, I come away from this feeling it may now also be too familiar and at risk of wearing out its welcome completely.
Of bigger import than the light but still passable entertainment is the film’s attempts at delivering a main plot about Peabody’s fatherhood, which strives for some sentimentality on the subject but misfires more than once. There’s a familiar “they grow up so fast” feeling when Sherman first goes to school, while Penny provokes the biting incident by mercilessly mocking Sherman for being “a dog”. When Sherman confesses this, Peabody is understandably troubled by the idea of the boy being shamed by that, even though the boy’s love for him is apparent. The issue is exacerbated thanks to Penny, whose entire purpose for most of the movie is to tempt Sherman into taking the initiative to do things that he believes Peabody wouldn’t want him to do. Matters reach the tipping point with Sherman’s reckless test drive of Leonardo’s flying machine and Sherman learning about the threat from Ms. Grunion that Peabody kept to himself, which combine to spark what we’re meant to see as a conflict over what Sherman should be trusted to handle. Matters are resolved when Sherman gets a sharp reminder of what Peabody means to him and ultimately declares he’d be proud to be considered “a dog” just like him, while some clever thinking from Sherman during the climax motivates Peabody to put more trust in his son and rely on him to pilot the WABAC. Just to make the point obvious the end of the film even has a role reversal where Sherman is giving Peabody advice and advising him not to worry about this or that on the way to school, while it was Peabody being the kindly worrywart near the start.
Unfortunately, while Penny is ultimately contrite for her bullying, all this glosses over the fact that that Sherman’s disobedience before the pair’s brief falling out was a reaction to Penny. He disobeyed so she would not make fun of him, or so she would like him. The movie would have us coming away from this perceiving a narrative about a parent learning to let a child grow up and have some well-earned independence. This is a destination many well-worn paths lead to, but if good and original ways to tell this story still exist, a first grader succumbing to peer pressure is not among them.
In the end Mr. Peabody and Sherman amounts to decent entertainment, but it’s also a regrettably thin as a “family movie” whose reach doesn’t meet its modest ambitions. This is a film that would have benefited more from a single-minded focus on having fun with itself, or else any message that we haven’t heard numerous times before. Yes, our kids will grow up one day. Now, what else?